The Whole Picture is Nothing But a Compilation of Details.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Barely Across the Andes

"BEEP. BEEP. BEEP" it shrieked. We had barely put our heads down on the cool, cushy, comfortable pillows when the nocturnal bird, with the cry of an alarm clock, woke us up. This continued with regular intervals throughout the night and we became worried we would be immune to the sound of the alarm when it rang at 5:15 am to get us on the bus by 6:00 am sharp. Hence, we laid awake for most of the night. Ticktock. Ticktock. BEEP BEEP. BEEP. Ticktock. Ticktock. BEEP BEEP. BEEP. Ticktock. Ticktock. BEEP BEEP. BEEP.

Soon, the night turned to morning and naturally, the chorus grew louder. When the clock struck five we gave up on sleep and rose to meet our Swiss inn-keeper for our arranged ride to the bus station downtown, fifteen minutes away. We were convinced, given his heritage, that he'd already be up and waiting for us with the engine running. He was nowhere to be seen. Watching each passing minute with growing concern, we were certain the bus, in typical Argentine fashion, would not leave even thirty seconds late. Twenty minutes before six, we knocked on all possible doors, waking up everyone at the bed and breakfast including thankfully, the large rottweiler, our wildly barking saviour. Shirttails hanging out and rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, our inn-keeper appeared at last. Without further ado, we departed for the bus station: a cloud of dust attempting to travel back in time down a bumpy dirt road.

The time was 6:03 am when we arrived and for some inexplicable reason the bus had not yet departed. Panting, with our hearts in our throats, we sank into our seats on the bus to Valdivia, Chile, some seven hours away.

Customs and immigration were cleared at Paso Mamuil Malal; a fairly lengthy process for a bus since all luggage has to be taken off the vehicle, checked into Chile and loaded again. With passports stamped and officially in the country with the longest coastline in South America, we traveled on paved roads coiling through a breathtaking landscape of stark contrasts: deep gorges, icy blue rivers, tall mountains, lush forest and as we descended, hectares of rich farmland sitting in the shadow of the majestic Volcano Lanín (12,389').

We arrived in Valdivia with no plans or itinerary other than a rented car and a flight out of Santiago: the backbone of our travel in Chile, the Navimag ferry had been taken out of service a few days earlier, thwarting our plan of observing exotic marine life whilst drifting south on a ferry through the dazzling fjords of Chile.

Instead, our journey was planned en route and included a few close calls but always somehow unfolding without a hitch. It took us to where our guide book ended and very few people ventured: the coast between Hornopirén and Ralún.

Monday, March 14, 2011

42 Hours in San Martin de los Andes

Rolling through the Pampas of Argentina
 The bus left Buenos Aires at 1600 hours sharp and moved us in comfort through the brown- and yellow hued, arid steppe covered with hardy vegetation like mata negra; jarilla, used locally to combat rheumatism; thyme; creeping crowfoot; thorny calafate, and tufts of coirón grass. (The people of Patagonia say that if you consume the blue berries of the Calafate you will never leave, or if you do, you always come Home. I clearly ate some back in 2006 when I first came here...) Rio Colorado, Rio Limay, and Rio Negro run like ribbons of blue through the over-grazed Pampas, but do not come close to providing enough water to sustain more vegetation. Somehow the cattle, horses, sheep, and burros feeding off this land are fat anyway. As we drew near our destination, a pair of condors appeared overhead, soaring across the clear blue sky, and the snow capped Lanin Volcano rose on our horizon, guiding us, as it did when I crossed the Andes on horseback in 2006 ( Twenty hours later, we arrived the sparkling lakeside town of San Martin de los Andes, 650 miles southwest of Buenos Aires.

Unbeknownst to us, there were plans made for our 42-hour visit. My friend Yvonne swept us off to lunch with the Department of Tourism of San Martin de los Andes and El Gordo, business owner of el Bodegón, both curious about my work as travel ambassador with Much Better Travel, Inc, and The International Ecotourism Society (TIES). From there, we drove up to Yvonne's business partner Raol's camp at Lago Lolog for a late afternoon ride on their newly acquired horses. Muscular, healthy, strong and surefooted, they carried us up the mountainside to pause on a rocky clearing, overlooking Lago Lolog. Upon our return, Carmelo, the 68-year old caretaker greeted us with a warm smile, his face carved by years of wind and weather, his expression leaving no doubt of his delight in the moment. He gently unbridled the horses, hosed them off and set them free to graze on the thousands of available hectares. His loving gaze followed them as they trotted off down the dusty path. A smile across his face. His dog at his side.

Raol had started to prepare for dinner by heating up the oven, a process of first lighting a fire inside the beehive, and when it's hot enough, cleaning out the charred materials to make room for the food. This home-made construction of bricks and mortar supported on five wooden posts was hot and ready when we arrived, having first washed the dust off our hands in the cold stream that runs through the property. As we waited for the fresh, free-range, lemon basted chicken to cook, we munched on slices of chorizo and sipped cold, local cerveza Quilmes, delicious after a dusty ride. The temperature dropped quickly after sunset, and longing for a real bed after the long bus ride, we were soon enveloped by clean sheets, falling asleep as the cool breeze rustled the curtain, whispering "good night".

The morning brought sunshine and a couple visiting for a half day of horseback riding: dressed to the nines, complete with cameras, sunglasses and backpacks. Dissuaded to bring the backpack, we mounted and waved goodbye to Carmelo. (For those of you who don't know, during a ride a backpack hits you square in the back with every step of the horse, and catches branches overhead. The story typically ends with the rider on the ground, the backpack in the tree, and the horse nowhere to be found.) Yvonne guided us through lush lenga- and enchanted pine tree forests; growths of Chusquea macrostachya, also knows as Chilean Mountain Bamboo; yellow seas of blossoming Alstroemerias, pausing for breathtaking views of the Andes and Lago Lolog. The couple, hesitant to begin, were beaming. The Andes are magical, no doubt.   

Friday, March 11, 2011

Rubbish in Buenos Aires: One Man's Trash is Another Man's Treasure.

Photo by Chet Scorpio

Strolling back to our bed and breakfast through dark streets of Buenos Aires, the lid of the dumpster suddenly moves. Food scraps, cardboard, and plastic soar through the air and land with a thud at the paws of an eagerly waiting, well-nourished, black "designer dog" a.k.a. mutt. The head of a young man appears over the edge of the six-yard metal dumpster, then disappears again, back into the debris. More garbage is catapulted into the street, and soon the young man surfaces and leaps out in one fluid movement. He places his collected treasures in a wooden cart, styled like an old oxcart, which he pulls behind him to the next dumpster where the process is repeated. Left behind is nothing short of a disaster.

The next morning, the streets are spotless. I am baffled.

Our hostess, Brenda, explains: There is no separation of garbage at the source in her barrio, or neighborhood. The producer, be it a household or a sizable restaurant, places any and all refuse, including but far from limited to: cardboard, food remnants, bathroom trash, glass containers, and plastic bottles in bags, or not, and then in six-yard containers in the street.

The container lids are weighted down and open with a hinged steel bar running along the base of the container, preventing birds and animals from foraging through the contents. This privilege is reserved for the "cartoneros". Nick-named after the Spanish word for cardboard: cartón, this informal group of young, uneducated, and poor people is the self-appointed backbone of the city's recycling program.

No joke. The website  reports that the government, having tried and failed twice to implement a working program for trash separation and recycling, decided to essentially adopt the informal system already in place: los cartoneros had learned the ins and outs of recycling during the Argentine economic crisis in 2001, and were already keeping tons of recyclable and reusable material out of landfills whilst making a living, their activity legalized in 2002. Robert Felicetti, former city environment minister, is quoted in the December 2006 issue of The Argentina Independent, a publication aiming to increase awareness of the cultural, political and environmental sides of Argentine life, whilst promoting tourism:  “We want to develop a productive way of working for these people – many of whom are women and young people who have never had a formal job in their lives. They are doing a great service to the city – we have no recycling policies and environmentally that is disastrous. We need cartoneros, on the most basic level.”

An estimated seven thousand cartoneros decend on the city each evening, bar Saturdays due to the city's schedule for trash collection.  They travel from surrounding barrios with their homemade carts, sometimes drawn by a horse, but more typically the cart is a refurnished dolly with a woven plastic bag, or a shopping cart; if there is a horse in front of the cart, it is equipped with steel shoes to protect the hoofs from the hard surface. The cartoneros are crafty and industrious, hustling through the night, often working in groups. Their collected recyclables are sold to stockpilers: other goods are reused, repaired, or sold within the community. 

Working together, cartoneros formed cooperatives to act as liaisons with the neighborhoods and government agencies, assist with childcare, and negotiate better prices for the recycled goods. The first cooperative, El Ceibo was formed in 1989 by nine women who went door to door, educating clients in the benefits of recycling efforts, asking them to do their share by sorting the trash at the source. Today there are approximately ten cooperatives in and around Buenos Aires. Jill Greenberg reports in her 2010 article "Recycling Paper, Plastics, and People" that El Ciebo joined forced with Greenpeace Argentina in 2004.

"Coming together is a beginning.
Keeping together is progress.
Working together is success. "
~ Henry Ford

The Zero Waste law, adopted by Argentina in 2005, stipulates that all recyclable and compostable material is to be kept out of landfills by 2020. A lofty goal according to some, but as already demonstrated by the cartoneros: teamwork divides the work and multiplies success.

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Sunday, March 6, 2011

Dinner, Tango, and Cigars In the Other City That Never Sleeps.

Courtesy of
Barely off the ferry from Uruguay, dodging a few "free-lance" taxis, we were suddenly absorbed by the disembarking mob, with which we merged. As the crowd disappeared into Buenos Aires like a cloud dispersed by wind, we found ourselves next to the taxi line outside the terminal - just where we wanted to be! Placed third in line, we were assigned the third car that pulled in. There was no room for error or forging ahead as the man in charge was the definition of "effective and orderly" personified. As we slid into the backseat, I already had my hackles up and my arguments and questions formulated in Spanish to avoid being ripped off by the driver like we had in Montevideo. Burn me once, shame on you; burn me twice, shame on me. Moments later we arrived safely and without disagreements at Los Patios de Montserrat, a bed and breakfast centrally located in the textile district, ten blocks from the obelisk at Plaza de la Republica, where the Argentine flag was hoisted for the first time in Buenos Aires, on August 23, 1812.

In typical fashion, adding an element of surprise wherever we went, our accommodations in Buenos Aires were booked "sight unseen". The marble entryway looked like a fancy apartment building so we hesitated briefly before ringing the buzzer labeled "reception", afraid it was someone's private home. I had barely removed my finger when the smiling inn keeper appeared in the doorway welcoming us to Los Patios de Montserrat. Graham, originally from New York, and his Argentine artist wife Brenda have owned and operated the stately 19th century home as a bed and breakfast since they purchased the building in 2009.

The Ballroom at Los Patios de Montserrat
We took the elevator up two floors, and were enveloped by a beautiful natural light, which entered the space through skylights and an open courtyard. A nice, refreshing breeze came from the ballroom, where the original solid wood, floor-to-ceiling double doors were wide open, letting the warm, dry summer air of Buenos Aires seep in. Eight sets of simple wooden chairs and tables dressed in blue cloths hugged the wall by the open double-doors, the openings secured by rod-iron banisters. A small metal statue of a peeing dog kept a door from slamming shut. I was completely consumed, wishing the floor and walls could tell me all the stories and secrets they held.

Brought back to reality, we were shown to room number fourteen, which was furnished with a beautiful, simple bed flanked by wooden bedside tables. There was an antique dresser for our clothes, and the light fixtures all had energy efficient light bulbs (provided through an exchange program sponsored by the manufacturer). The toilet, separated from the rest of the room by a door, shared ceiling space with the adjacent, shared bath for "damas", an ingenious way to use space and add a private bathroom, which posed no problem to us at all as the "damas" had very little, if any traffic during our stay. The toilet door was framed by bricks; otherwise our room was made of stucco and ceramic tile. The shower head was modern and the water pressure fantastic - wonderful after the experience in Montevideo where a moderate rain shower would have been more effective than was the shower at the hostel.

Rested, clean, and dressed in our best, we set out for dinner, tango, and cigars, an evening talked about excitedly since the day our flights were booked. For me, it felt fantastic to shed winter clothes and put on a sleeveless dress, which I paired with my finest flip-flops (remember, we were backpacking after all). One of my favorite things about Buenos Aires and South America in general is the lack of air conditioning: you never have to worry about freezing to death inside a restaurant when it's eighty degrees outside; a threat particularly prevalent in the state of Florida. We found a little restaurant around the corner which met our simple criteria: they had a wood burning oven. At "Parilla la Posada" we had a lovely dinner served by an enthusiastic and sincere waiter. I spoke Spanish; he spoke English. Eager to be on time for the tango show, we departed in a hurry and hoofed it across town to Piazzolla Tango. The show was delayed so our arriving ten minutes after said show time didn't matter. In fact, the guests who were there for dinner as well were just served their main course as we sat down in the opulent hall, reminiscent of the grand old theatres of Europe.

The exact origins of tango - both the word and the dance are lost in myth and unrecorded history. It is generally agreed upon that this dramatic and sensual dance was brought to Uruguay and Argentina in the late 1800's by poor European immigrants, and that the music reflects their sense of loss and longing for the people and places left behind. The more affluent classes encountered the dance in brothels and dance halls; the only place they interacted with the poor, working class. Inscribed onto the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List, the popularity of tango has fluctuated with historical economic conditions, but has been widely celebrated since the mid-1980's.

After a wonderful performance, we paused for coffee and dessert at a local bar/cafe, amazed at the number of people partying on a Tuesday night. Bars were full and happening at 1:30 am. When do these people work? we wondered. The next morning we noticed that the clock over the reception desk was one hour behind ours and we quickly realized why we were alone in the restaurant, early for the tango show, and had plenty of company at the bar so "late"...

We had both been to Buenos Aires before and felt no urge to see all the historical sites again. We wanted to take in the city on the street level, so we walked. For hours. Dodging summer rain showers, children blowing soap bubbles, and aggressive sales men offering leather goods, currency exchange, and the best parillo in town. In the afternoon we headed over to the bus terminal for the next southbound leg of our journey.

The Original Terminal
El Retiro consists of two parts: the old one and the new one. It's in the old part they have the good food (and all the thieves and undercover police), so that's of course where we provisioned for the twenty-hour bus ride to San Martin de los Andes. We are obviously both of the type more concerned with real threats like immediate availability of food to stave off a direct nose-dive to the horrible (for everyone) blood sugar-bottom, than with crime, which has a greater component of shit luck and can therefore only be averted to a point determined by your street smarts. The new part of the terminal is host to sterile and scary food like rubbery hot dogs and bright yellow popcorn, hair salons, and in excess of thirty bus companies competing for, and managing thousands of passengers daily on their way to and from far-flung destinations. The activity on the ground is a continuous, cyclical blur of buses pulling in exactly fifteen minutes before departure; platforms being announced over crackly loudspeakers; tickets collected by courteous drivers in pressed uniforms; luggage carefully matched with tickets and placed in the belly of the bus; passengers taking their assigned seats; and drivers cautiously maneuvering their bus away from the platform, right on their scheduled time of departure. The efficiency and level of professionalism is unimaginable.

We were southbound again, cruising down paved roads in wide, comfortable seats that folded down 180 degrees, with on-board service that put any airline to shame.

Friday, March 4, 2011

24 hours in Montevideo, Uruguay

Bellies bursting with our splendid Mexican breakfast (see "Ethnic Culinary Adventure"), we boarded our overnight flight to Miami. No doubt, these 1,256 miles would have been more comfortable atop a gimpy packhorse. Throughout my years travelling I have found that the simpler the mode of transport, the richer the experience. At least the flight crew had the sense to not wake us up for the moments we were asleep, which were not many. The flight Miami - Buenos Aires offered even less comfort. Sleeping on a plane, or any other place for that matter, has never been challenging for me, but this time none of my carefully developed folding techniques worked: I folded my body in threes; at the knees, waist, and neck, trying to avoid spilling over into the next seat; I folded over once, simply putting my head down on my folded, stacked arms on the the folding tray; I folded just my neck, guaranteed to wake up with that ninety degree angle, characteristic of flying. I remained sleepless. Sleeping on a beach in Montevideo became more appealing with each and every attempt to get comfortable. 
Why Montevideo? you may ask. I will counter question: Why not? Plus it gave us the opportunity to cross Rio de la Plata by ferry, which seemed like a reason as good as any, including evading an entry fee of $150 payable to the Argentine government, one of many money-saving measures we took over the next two weeks. Soon we would refer to how much money we earned in a day.

We crashed on the beach (sans airplane.), in lee of the jetty holding up "la rambla", the paved promenade littered with pink condoms and dog shit that stretches 13.6 miles along the shores of Uruguay's capital.  
Windburned and chilly after our nap, we strolled along the beach, sand brutally and painfully exfoliating the skin of our pasty white bodies, past empty restaurants and a parked taxi where the driver, not his female passenger, was the paying customer. From the lack of sleep we were in that foggy state of no-time, no place, feeling like we had travelled not by airplane but by time machine since we stood packed on his doorstep in a coastal suburb north of Boston less than 24 hours ago. We had no idea of the name of the hostel, much less the address.

Crossing over the street landed us in the shopping district where a very pleasant owner/cook/server provided us with much needed Patricia, the local beer, and tortillas. Feeling better, we found our way back to the hostel thanks only to me absentmindedly having grabbed a flier with the address on it as we left for the beach, dazed, hours before.

Staying at a hostel was on the to-do list and Hostel Punto Berry ( was the subject of our experiment. For the "grand" sum of $48, we had a private bedroom two blocks from Playa de Pocitos, a shared, clean bathroom, free WiFi and Internet access, breakfast, and friendly, very helpful staff. Absent was only pillow cases, easily rectified by sliding t-shirts over the pillows. Our experiment was hence recorded as successful.

Adding a nap to your day is like adding another day, which is why at 8 pm we went out in pursuit of coffee and dessert. Suddenly, somehow, we found ourselves in the midst of the music, food, throngs of people, and general chaos of an amusement park. "Toto, I've a feeling we are no longer in Kansas."

The language barrier, created by lack of confidence, came down rapidly, like a concrete wall blown up with mighty explosives. The first set of directions I obtained was easy: "Follow la Rambla straight for four kilometers". "And, she shorter way?" I asked, now on a mission to get us back to the hostel as the darkness quickly swallowed the city. As a rule, I avoid strolling through unknown cities at night. After two and a half hours, ice cream, cookies and several conversations with shopkeepers and doormen, we stood at the door step of Hostel Punto Berry. It felt like we had completed an orienteering course. Nothing could keep us from sleeping that night: not the incessantly barking dogs below our window, the slamming doors, nor the beer-drinking, laughing backpackers. We were the first guests to tuck in, and the last ones to rise the next morning - a brilliant right, but one you can only exercise as you get older. Think about it.

With some effort and help from the hostel staff we secured tickets for the next leg of our travel: Three hours by bus upriver to Colonia del Sacramento, a former Portuguese settlement and UNESCO site, and onwards to Buenos Aires via ferry across Rio de la Plata. From terminal Tres Cruces, Montevideo, BuqueBus drove us in comfort through rich farmlands receiving a much needed dose of rain feeding the well-designed but dry irrigation system. We were deposited at the state-of-the-art ferry terminal where bags were taken straight from the bus to the ferry, and the distance between the Uruguay and Argentine was the width of the immigration counter. The whole process was seamless. 

M/S Buque Patricia Olivia II, a three hundred passenger, high-speed catamaran powered by marine gas turbines safely brought us to the western shore of the river, angry and the color of weak coffee from sediments stirred up by the strong winds, at an average speed of 23.6 knots. Eighties' music and the Beatles streamed on the TV screens for the fifty minutes it took to get to Buenos Aires, capital of Argentina and the tango, as they would for the entirety of our journey through Argentina and Chile.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Mission Impossible?

"Pack plenty of Tigerbalm, and be prepared to fight an irresistible urge of wanting to strangle each other!" he said: My well-travelled Chilean business partner was not impressed with our itinerary as proposed.

The highlight and backbone of our travel plans was a twenty-hour, south-bound ferry ride on a 114 meter long steel ship through fjords and glaciers from Puerto Montt to Puerto Chacabuco, Chile. In Puerto Chacabuco, a small, isolated settlement without a defined town center, we had planned to pick up a 4x4 rental car and drive south, 954 miles to Punta Arenas, drop off the car and fly to Santiago. You can drive 2,800 miles across America from Washington, DC to San Francisco, CA in approximately forty-one hours, so to take nine days to drive less than half of that distance seemed reasonable. Until you take into account the Carretera Austral, which south of Puerto Montt winds along the coast like a serpent made from gravel continually shifting under your tires, demanding your undivided attention. And not only do you have to navigate the road; you also have to be on the lookout for the other travellers on this pot-holed one lane: Other cars; bicyclists; horses; sheep; children; cows; and eighteen-wheelers - more often than not encountered in the middle of the road. Exceeding forty miles per hour is suicidal for the most part. Add to that a $750 one-way drop-off fee for the rental car and we were back at the drawing board.
Our revised, equally shared and separately arranged itinerary, the other person not knowing the details of the other person's preparations, looked as follows when we departed Boston. On paper.
  • Day 1: Arrival in Montevideo. Prospect of cold drinks on hot beach.
  • Day 2: Bus and ferry to Buenos Aires for dinner, tango and cigars. (Despite three earlier visits, this was still on my list of things to do.)
  • Day 3: Overnight bus (20 hrs) to San Martin de los Andes, a Swiss alpine town located in Argentina, to enjoy two days of friendship, generous hospitality and business meetings. 
  • Day 6: Bus departure at six am for eight hours across the Andes to Valdivia, Chile to pick up a rental car. Drive 115 miles to Puerto Montt. PM departure on 20-hour ferry through the fjords and archipelago of central Chile, known for its marine life and stark beauty. Late arrival in Puerto Chacabuco.
  • Day 7 - 13: Rent a 4x4 vehicle and explore the Carretera Austral for seven days, heading north, 320 miles up the coast and back to Puerto Montt.
  • Day 13: Overnight bus from Puerto Montt to Santiago.
  • Day 14 - 15: Business Meetings in Santiago. Fly home at night.  
We had made some arrangements: lodging in Montevideo, Buenos Aires, and San Martin de los Andes, booked the bus from Buenos Aires to San Martin de los Andes, the ferry, and a rental car. Everything else was "TBD", To Be Determined, and we looked forward to the element of surprise.

Little did we know just how many surprises the next two weeks had in store for us...